My admiration for the late Julian Symons is almost unbounded, and my latest contribution to Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is a novel he published in 1967, The Man Who Killed Himself.
This is a novel that I read perhaps three years after it first appeared. Symons was one of the first contemporary crime writers whom I read after I ran out of Agatha Christies to devour. Now, some may say that Symons, an advocate of the ‘psychological crime novel’ had little in common with Christie as a writer. But although they belonged to different generations, and had different literary preoccupations, Symons could plot quite brilliantly, and the plot of The Man Who Killed Himself really gripped the youthful Martin Edwards.
It’s the story of a timid, hen-pecked man called Arthur Brownjohn, who metamorphoses into the caddish Major Easonby Mellon. It’s a means of escape for him. But when murder occurs, the double identity seems to offer not merely escape, but salvation.
The opening line is: ‘In the end Arthur Brownjohn killed himself, but in the beginning he made up his mind to murder his wife.’ Symons is strong on irony – you might almost say that this book is a Sixties update of Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles (which I first read around the same time), though there are many differences in the story-lines. Like Iles, Symons tends not to go in for too many sympathetic characters, and some readers find this off-putting. But I thought this was a clever book when I first devoured it, and I haven’t changed my mind since.